03: In The Beginning

 

Hightower In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a super computer is built to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and – well – everything. It takes this computer seven and a half million years to calculate its solution.

 

Deep Thought The answer to the great question…

 

Man Yes?

 

Deep Thought …of life, the universe and everything…

 

Man Yes?

 

Deep Thought …Is…

 

Man Yes?

 

Deep Thought …Is…

 

Deep Thought …42. It was a tough assignment.

 

Man Forty-two? Is that all you’ve got to show for seven-and-a-half million year’s work?

 

Deep Thought I think the problem is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.

 

Hightower That clip is from the 1981 made-for-TV version of the story. I never watched the entire BBC miniseries, but I do remember seeing that clip when I was a kid and the idea that you have to ask the right question before you can understand the answer has stuck with me.

 

Buildings are built for a lot reasons, but typically they are created to fulfill a functional need – to solve a problem if you will, or answer a question. A building’s design is the answer to that question – the solution to that problem. But just like the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ve got to make sure the building is answering the right question.

 

Most people know that architects design buildings, but architects also work with clients to determine what those buildings need to do. It’s the first and arguably the most important part of the process.

 

That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the third episode of The Works, a podcast about architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

Unlike a writer, an architect rarely begins with a completely blank page. Almost always there is a site – a place in the world where the building will sit. Also, there is almost always a program.

 

Now when I say “program”, I’m not talking about a computer program or the piece of paper that lists the songs a middle school band plays at its end-of-the-year concert. What I am talking about is a document that describes the functional requirements of a building. If it’s a house, for example, the program will state how many bedrooms it will have and how big they need to be. If it’s a school, it will state how many classrooms are required and how many books the library needs to contain. In both cases the program describes the larger goals of the project.

 

In architecture school, students are often first given a program that acts as the assignment for the semester’s design studio. A professor will provide the parameters of the project that the student will use to create his or her design. In school, the program is the point of departure. But what I learned early in my career is that design arguably begins before that. It begins with the creation of the program itself.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first go back to my beginning, or at least to my beginning as an architect. In an earlier episode I described a little of my experience as an architecture student at the University of Texas at Austin:

 

Larry Speck “We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us.”

 

In 2000 I graduated from UT and moved to Chicago to begin my career as an architect. Chicago is a great city and living there is like inhabiting a textbook of architectural history. Also, there is the two-inch thick Chicago-style pizza. 

 

Mmmm. Give me a moment…

 

Anyway, I’ll admit the first few months of that first job were a bit of a challenge. As an architecture student you work in a protected vacuum - that’s kind of what college is all about, after all. As soon as you graduate, though, you are thrown out into the world, labeled an “intern architect” and suddenly the work you do is determined by others in a way that it never was before. Suddenly, architecture becomes a lot less fun.

 

I wrote an essay about the experience I had at that first job when I was relegated to drawing bubble diagrams in PowerPoint. In the essay I recalled, “In school we may slave away on hypothetical projects that will never be built, we can rationalize that-”

 

You know, reading the words I wrote fifteen years ago in the grizzled voice of a man approaching middle age seems wrong. The younger version of myself who wrote this was much more wide-eyed and innocent and the voice of the person reading it words should reflect that.

 

Let’s try again:

 

Haynes In school we may slave away on hypothetical projects that will never be built, we can rationalize that it is all done in preparation for that first “real” job. But in those first few months of that first real job, interns often find themselves as far away from architecture as ever. Instead of creating beauty, we find ourselves staring at colored circles on a 13-inch computer monitor, trying to remember at what point things had gone so horribly wrong.

 

Hightower OK, maybe I was being a little overly dramatic. But remember, I didn’t have a family yet and my entire identity was intertwined – for better or worse – with the work that I was doing at that moment.

 

Haynes Eventually, because of my great skill at creating bubble diagrams, I was added to a team that was programming a school in Indiana. Over the next several months I traveled to a small town in that state and assisted in gathering information for the school’s design. While I hadn’t moved to Chicago to do programming, I found the process and the people I was working with intriguing. With them I was able to witness first hand how an infant building is formed. And while I was still drawing circle diagrams, the circles now had context and meaning.

 

I eventually became part of the team that worked on that school in Indiana. I was incredibly proud of the design we produced and although I didn’t know it at the time, the programming work I was doing - those bubble diagrams I was creating – represented one of the most important lessons I learned in those first years out of school.

 

I now remember my time in Chicago very fondly. I met people there who I maintain friendships with to this day. One of those friends is Peter Brown.

 

Brown I’m Peter Brown, a Dallas-based architect.

 

Peter was a little older – he had kids about the same age as mine are now – but like me, he was from Texas so we could bond over the challenges of living in a place that had neither Tex-Mex nor Shiner. Peter had gone to school at Texas Tech out in Lubbock and so his experiences in school were similar to mine.

 

Brown So among the exciting things about west Texas is wide open spaces and wide open cotton fields, and as it turned out we had a dorm mate that had a brand new Trans Am – the first of a model year – with T-tops. And we found that the T-tops actually were handy for transforming the Trans Am into a hunting-mobile and on occasion we went rabbit hunting in the cotton out near west Texas.

 

Then again, some of our experiences were more similar than others. Anyway, Peter had become highly involved in the programming buildings.

 

Brown So what I realized very quickly in understanding different building types is if you want to design a great building you have to understand the client in a very deep way and understand their motivations, their business cycles and really everything around your client’s business and operations.

 

It’s almost like an actor researching a role – in order to produce a believable design or performance, you really have to understand all of your subject’s backstory and motivations.

 

Brown And so in effort to work on great buildings and design great buildings I dove into schools to understand how schools work and what makes a really terrific school from a function point of view and a design point of view.

 

So programming as an idea is really working with the client to understand what their intentions are for building something – what they want to cause, what they hope will happen because they are building something. In doing that, it’s understanding many different things about the operation of their business.

 

Hightower Working with Peter defined for me how critical programming was. An innovative design resulted from an innovative program. The two are irrevocably linked.

 

Brown It’s a conversation between the two. I think really big ideas start in the programming phase because from there you can help owners to solve problems in very clear and elegant ways. And in doing so I think then it’s important to start with the design concepts so that the client can see how spaces not only look and feel but also how they work. And that’s an integral relationship back and forth between design and programming.

 

Hightower Peter remembers one job earlier in his career that showed him the importance of programming. On paper it was a very challenging project – there literally was not enough money to build all the spaces the school needed. This quickly became apparent when the programming team was meeting with the school’s teachers and staff.

 

Brown And the superintendent was sort of in and out of those meetings and one meeting she came in was just sort of scanning the program list and issued a challenge to really her users – not the architects – that said, “look, you have almost 4,000 square feet programmed for a library and if we go to any library in the school district you’ll find one or two students in it at a time and so, teachers, you have to tell me how are you going to use this 4,000 square feet and if you want it as a library, how are you going to get kids in it full time? Otherwise we’re taking it out of the program.”

 

And that was a really interesting challenge because it caused the user group and our programming team to really think through, “Why do we have a library? What are other possibilities of libraries? How do we increase the functionality of the library space?”

 

Hightower Rather than eliminate a part of the building they could not afford, the teachers and programmers came up with a new way of conceptualizing how a library could function within a school.

 

Brown And so in the end what we did was distribute it. We called it at that point a “distributed Library” where we organized some area in each of a series of classroom clusters for the library function. And that way students could use books whenever they needed it – the whole class didn’t have to go down at one time once a week. The resources were fully available to them all during the school week.

 

And as it turned out they built it that way and as it turns out, the whole school became the library. The corridors became places for kids to study and work and be and these small libraries were an active part of the classroom environment.

 

Hightower If as a designer, Peter had showed up waving his hands in the air and describing his “vision” of a school that didn’t have a library, the idea would have probably been rejected out of hand. But since that programmatic concept was developed by and supported by the teachers and administrators who understood the factors leading to its creation, the design of a school with a distributed library became the obvious choice. Good design resulted from good programming.

 

Peter defined what programming was for me, but for most architects practicing in the second half of the twentieth century, programming was defined for them by William Peña. “Willie” as his friends call him sort of wrote the book on programming. Actually, he didn’t “sort of” write it. He literally wrote the book on programming.

 

Peña If design is problem solving, who is going to state the problem? Who’s going to state what problem to solve? So we need a program that does that – that exposes the problem to the needs of the client and so design is problem solving but programming is problem seeking – finding out what the problem really is.

 

Problem Seeking was first published in 1969. It was a primer about the importance of programming and the process in which a good program is created.

 

Willie was born in Laredo, Texas in 1919. He studied architecture at Texas A&M University in College Station and like many architecture students, he took some time off to visit Europe - only in his case he went to Europe in the Army to fight in World War II. In the final months of the war he lost his left foot to a landmine near Schlieden (SHLIDEN), Germany.

 

After the war, he picked up things where he had left them. He returned to College Station to complete his final year of architecture school and started working for one of his professors, Bill Caudill.

 

Caudill’s firm, Caudill Rowlett Scott went by the acronym, CRS. CRS was purchased by another firm, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum or HOK in 1994. I realize that’s a lot of acronyms to keep track of and I apologize. Architecture firms go by acronyms far too often, IMHO.

 

Anyway, for Willie, programming was all about the systematic gathering and analysis of data. And Just as Peter had taught me, Willie understood that one of the most important benefits of going through the programming exercise is that it helps make sure the building can be built for the amount of money the client has to spend.

 

Peña One of the things that programming did was balance the budget. CRS was very good at cost estimating. Why? Because we balanced the budget at programming - not in design. I remember the first project I went to in Laredo – it was my hometown – and I knew the superintendent and I went to him and I said, “We’re $20,000 over our budget.” And he said “Don’t talk to me, talk to the teachers. They have a committee down there.”

 

Hightower Instead of an administrator unilaterally eliminating parts of the building to balance the budget, the users of the school chose what was truly important and what was not.

 

Peña So I went to the teachers and I said, “We’re $20,000 over the budget. We have to cut some space. And so we had the brown sheets up then – and that’s where the brown sheets come into their best. We had these four or five brown sheets with every classroom - every space on them.

 

Hightower The brown sheets were literally large pieces of brown butcher paper pinned to the wall. The programmers would draw all the required spaces of a building on them at the same scale so everyone could graphically see how much space was being allocated to each function.

 

Peña And so I said, “Now we have to cut so much space to cut $20,000.” A had went up and the librarian said, “I asked for two classrooms – two library classrooms – I can get by with only one. In fact most schools don’t have two classrooms they just have one – if at all.” OK, so that was the first cut. Then after that everybody raised their hand and said, “Cut so and so and so and so.” So we balanced the budget at programming. When we came out at the end at the bid letting, it was easy. The bids were within the budget.

 

Hightower The Fifth edition of Problem Seeking was published in 2012. It was co-authored by Steve Parshall (PARTIAL).

 

Parshall My name is Steve Parshall. I’m an architectural programmer and I work at HOK in Houston, Texas.

 

Steve is a Senior Vice President at HOK and like his friend and Mentor Willie Peña he started out at CRS. He and I talked about the difference between programmers and designers.

 

Parshall Programmers, first of all, have to be objective. They have to look at information objectively. In design you’re allowed to advocate for a solution. So there’s a difference in your relationship with the client. Another aspect is that it’s more analytical. It’s all about analysis versus design is about synthesis, it’s about creative aspect of what we do in architecture. But a programmer takes a problem apart so that it can be put together. So that’s a different skill – skills in organizing information, classifying information, documenting information - so that it can be used in the design process.

 

Hightower In addition to processing data and creating a spreadsheet that lists all the rooms of a building and their relationships to one another, programmers also work to distill and document the goals of a project.

 

Parshall Goals are important. Goals are probably the most important step in programming because goals answer why is the client doing this. If a client comes and says “I need a two story building,” the programmer’s first question is, “Why? Why do you want a two story – two stories is a solution. What are you trying to accomplish?” And goals set direction for finding information.

 

Some goals are purely inspirational – to be the branded icon building in San Antonio. Sometimes they’re functional – we need to accommodate 2,500 students. But what’s important to acknowledge is that these are client goals and sometimes our clients are multi-headed. They have different factions. And so you get different areas of goal statements as you talk to your different client groups.

 

Hightower Steve didn’t go to architecture school to be a programmer, but when he objectively looked at what he was good at, he was able to create a career path that took advantage of his unique strengths.

 

Parshall In my case I went to school to be an architect. When I was in school not everyone in the class is going to be a designer - only about 10%. And that wasn’t my strength. So I had the opportunity to go to business school and so I got my masters in architecture and my masters in business. When I came out I found that the area of programming was a good way to put those two disciplines together. I understood what architecture was about and I had the creative interest and what Bill Caudill used to call the “aesthetic curse”. But I had this analytical side to me, this business side. And what the business degree helped me do is understand what my clients were talking about. And so what programmers do is translate. They translate what the clients are saying into terms that architects can use - terms and information. So in my case my background in college gave me the ability to be that kind of translator.

 

Hightower In addition to the “aesthetic curse” – the tendency to prioritize the quest for beauty above pragmatics – Bill Caudill was cursed in another way as well. He stuttered. It was something Willie noticed when he was a student at Texas A&M.

 

Peña The first day we met Bill Caudill in the classroom as a sophomore, he stuttered so much that we said “we have to get a new professor”. And so we said, “Wait a minute. This is his first day – he’s right out of MIT – his first teaching day and he’s nervous.” We waited until the next day and he was a little better. But he still stuttered, but we kept him.

 

Hightower The stuttering was an issue Caudill worked hard to overcome. But as he become more and more of a public figure, he stuttered less and less.

 

Peña By the time he was midway into his profession he was talking to 5,000 people in Atlantic City - to 5,000 educators and architects. And I got into the elevator after the speech and one educator said, “You know that Bill Caudill is very smart. I could understand everything he said.” But that was his secret. Since he stuttered, he didn’t use “exacerbate” or “ameliorate” – he couldn’t pronounce them! But he would say “things got better” or “things got worse”. So his English was plain.

 

Hightower And because he used accessible language, his ideas were accessible as well. Because he objectively understood the limitations of his condition – that he had a hard time saying big words – he was able to then design a solution that accommodated that limitation. That design solution – using simple language – in turn created a new possibility. He turned a problem into an opportunity, which in essence is the larger goal of programming. Like a school that acknowledges it can’t afford to build a library and so instead distributes its books and in so doing, makes knowledge available everywhere to everyone.

 

Special thanks today to Peter Brown and William Peña as well as Steve Parshall and Lauren Gibbs of HOK. Thanks also to Neville Haynes for standing in as the younger version of me.

 

Haynes So do have any advice for the 23-year-old version of yourself?

 

Hightower I do.

 

Haynes Well, what is it?

 

Hightower 42.

 

As always, thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood for help with the podcast’s logo and to Clara, my life partner, for help with its name. The music today is by Chris Zabriskie. The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.

 

Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.